Will regulators buy Airbnb’s new story about ‘belonging’?


(Airbnb)

People outside of the community, Brian Chesky frets, still don't get Airbnb, the short-term home-rental company he co-founded six years ago that's now expanded to nearly 200 countries.

"What’s happened over time is, you — our community — outgrew us, the brand," Chesky said at a staged, invite-only livestreamed event Wednesday meant to unveil the company's new branding to its "core" users first. "When people see Airbnb today that are outsiders, they still see that little website that rents rooms, when what we do together is so much bigger.

"You see," he went on, "Airbnb isn’t completely understood."

Chesky was beaming over the Internet from "the living room of the first Airbnb," a slightly awkward stage shared with the company's two co-founders and the guy who was that first guest six years ago. The scene looked a bit out of morning talk TV, a couple of guys in jeans reminiscing over the coffee table about the people they'd met on their travels: the Scandinavian host who broke out her guitar ("that moment was so authentic!"), the monk at the zen monastery in Japan ("no do-not-disturb sign could ever create that kind of peace and serenity...")

The scene was a distillation of how Airbnb sees itself: as a platform for community, as a lifestyle brand for the kind of person who's interested in making pancakes at home with strangers. As the company has grown, though, it has become a lot of other things as well: the subject of regulatory scrutiny, the nemesis of the hotel industry, the source of periodically weird press.

And so Wednesday's unveil — accompanied by a redesign of the company's website and mobile apps — appears intended to push back against those public perceptions that have direct bearing on how Airbnb will be governed and regulated in cities across the globe. When Chesky says that Airbnb isn't completely understood, what he really means is that Airbnb isn't understood by skeptics or competitors or bureaucrats who would like to roll back the company's massive growth.

"That is not about just rooms," Chesky said. "It’s an idea that’s bigger. As we were doing some soul searching I think we were trying to understand what is the unifying idea of Airbnb? If we were to communicate something to the world — from the moment people hear it, they just get it — what would it be?"

You may be surprised to learn that this answer is this:


Screen grab from Airbnb's webcast

Airbnb's new logo — an inverted heart vaguely shaped like an A that can be suggestively redrawn by anyone — is supposed to capture this idea.

"We’ve been talking about Airbnb as a way to get a house, when in fact it was a way to get a home," Chesky said, as if reaching a Don Draper-like epiphany. "You see, a house is just a space. But a home — a home is where you belong.

"Our core idea, what Airbnb is about at its core, is belonging."

With that narrative — and the new "Bélo" logo — Airbnb is aggressively marketing a tender story about itself. It's not an illegal hotel; it's a community. Its hosts aren't renting out their houses; they're sharing their homes. The point is to make memories, not necessarily money. "Belong anywhere," the new brand says. And why would you over-regulate a company whose chief product is that warm feeling you have when you're there?

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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Emily Badger | July 16